Science can solve the great mystery of consciousness – how physical matter gives rise to conscious experience – we just have to use the right approach, says neuroscientist Anil Seth
1 September 2021
THE nature of consciousness is truly one of the great mysteries of the universe because, for each of us, consciousness is all there is. Without it, there is no world, no self, no interior and no exterior. There is nothing at all.
The subjective nature of consciousness makes it difficult even to define. The closest we have to a consensus is that there is “something it is like to be conscious”. There is something it is like to be me or you, and probably something it is like to be a dolphin or a mouse. But there is – presumably – nothing it is like to be a bacterium or a toy robot. The challenge is to understand how and why this can be true. How do conscious experiences relate to the cells and molecules and atoms inside brains and bodies? Why should physical matter give rise to an inner life at all?
Some people fear science may not be up to the task. They point out that you can’t precisely control or observe felt experiences. Some even question the idea that physical mechanisms can ever explain consciousness.
I disagree. I believe that science is capable of explaining consciousness, but only if we stop treating it as a single big mystery requiring a humdinger solution. Instead, we must break it down into its various related properties and address each in turn. As we progressively explain why particular patterns of brain activity map to particular kinds of conscious experience, we will find that the deeper mystery of consciousness itself begins to fade away.
Humans have pondered the relationship between physical matter and …
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